When Talan was in preschool (in Western North Dakota), he was one of four or five boys in a class of a dozen. The boys were always outnumbered. Which was fine, the kids all got along well. But it also meant that the boys wanted to do everything the girls did, again completely fine. One day, the preschool teacher (it was also a daycare) brought nail polish to do the girls’ nails so, of course, the boys wanted their nails painted, too. At three years old, the boys saw nothing wrong with painting their nails. The only problem any of them really had was trying to pick out which colors to use. Thus, ever since Talan was three years old, he has enjoyed having his finger and toe nails painted. His father and I see nothing wrong with this. In fact, Talan has been known to paint his dad’s nails on occasion.
Talan is now in first grade and still enjoys painting his nails. More recently, he has only been painting his toe nails as he doesn’t have the time to wait for his finger nails to dry (preach, right?). This weekend, Talan decided he wanted his finger and toe nails painted. He has not done this is in a while but I was painting his sister’s and it looked like fun, so he asked if he could paint his own. I readily agreed, thinking it was something we could all enjoy together. And we did, we all had a blast painting our nails and even managed to get through the ordeal without spilling a bottle all over the floor.
The first time Talan painted his nails, I didn’t worry about what others would say to him or about him. After all, his entire class had their nails painted. I didn’t worry about it for a while…until he went to Kindergarten. The first day he went to school with his nails painted, I asked him after school if anyone said anything about it. He said no and continued with his day. On Monday he wore his painted nails to school again but this time in first grade. Kids noticed.
I knew that this year was going to be different when we were at my in-laws on Sunday night and my husband’s grandmother noticed Talan’s nails. She immediately asked him, “What are the kids at football going to say about that?” She was not being mean or menacing, she meant no ill-will. She is simply 87 and is not used to boys wearing fingernail polish. We ignored the comment, mainly because Talan didn’t hear and I felt I didn’t need to justify my son’s nails. On Monday, kids laughed at him. Not many, maybe one or two, and he refused to tell me whom perhaps sensing that I would want to enlighten them and their parents. At football practice on Tuesday, four kids on his team laughed at him, saying boys shouldn’t paint their nails. This morning at school drop-off, one little boy pointed and laughed at my son’s pinks nails.
When Talan first painted his nails, I was prepared to come to his defense. I was ready to proclaim his right to individuality and to support him through it all. When I wasn’t needed, I thought maybe I had anticipated too much and over reacted on my part. Now I realize that I was naïve and Talan was truly blessed at preschool. And young kids accept each other whole heartedly. Little kids do not care if your nails are painted or if you are a boy wearing a tutu or a girl wearing a football helmet. Little kids care if you want to play with them and play with them in “their way”. That’s it. Unfortunately, things change once kids go to school. Suddenly, kids are thrust into gender roles, not often by their teachers but rather by their peers. Kids are expected to play boy games if they are boys and girl games if they are girls and the two should not mix. Girls are expected to wear dresses, tutus, glitter and bows. Boys are expected to wear sports clothing and play sports, no matter their age. A group of kids, sometimes small and other times big, hold their peers to these expectations and through bullying reinforce antiquated cultural norms.
I do not know if their parents are to blame or the cultural they are brought up in. All I know is that as a society we are struggling to accept one another, whether it is based on religious choices, sexual preference, gender identities or political affiliations. We struggle to accept each other as adults because we are taught from such a young age what is “right” and what is “wrong”, what is “normal” and “okay."I look at my two year old daughter and love that she judges others simply based on if they will play with her. I love that she has no prejudices and if she doesn’t like you, it’s only because you made her take a nap or wouldn’t give her a gummie bear. (This never lasts long.) I look at her and am filled with sadness because I know society will try to change her in two short years and that instead of being accepted simply for who she is she will have to fight to be accepted for being her, just like her brother, and that she will (hopefully) fight for others to be accepted, too.
When Talan told us the kids laughed at him, he never asked why, he only reported that they laughed. It hurts my heart to think that he believes they were laughing at him for being different when in reality they probably were only laughing at him because they had been told by someone else that a boy with painted nails was wrong and not normal. Matt and I explained to Talan that he can paint his nails as long as he wants to, that it is perfectly okay for anyone to paint their nails and that he should just ignore those who laugh. Of course, it’s easy to say but different to do, especially as a child. I have been made of fun and when others laugh, it may make you tougher but it always tears away at you until, sadly, a part of you no longer wants to be tough but rather just ignored or accepted.
I hope my son continues to hold on to his individuality. I hope he continues to do things simply because he enjoys them and not because others tell him to. I hope he wears whatever he wants (as long as it’s weather appropriate). I hope he isn’t forced into becoming someone he isn’t, especially before he even knows who he is or finishes elementary school. And I really hope, and pray, that he will be a voice for others and their individuality. At the very least, I hope he is never one to laugh at others but rather, takes their hand and tells them that he accepts them just the way they are.